David Bollier, an award-winning policy strategist and international activist, is out with a new book that explains the rich history and promising future of the commons, “an ageless paradigm of cooperation and fairness that is re-making our world.” Unlike Bollier’s previous five books, Think Like a Commoner: A Short Introduction to the Life of the Commons explores the commons in layman’s terms, making it the ideal introduction for anyone wishing to learn more about what Bollier calls our “shared inheritance.”
Think Like a Commoner also offers a timely and important perspective on the revolution we’re working to document at Shareable in which more and more people are rising up against outdated regulatory frameworks and practicing new forms of self-governance, often involving sharing. Bollier suggests that the commons, as a paradigm and framework, is a serious alternative to the “corrupt Market/State” that has lost sight of “real people and practical realities.” As such, Bollier believes we must begin to think like commoners now.
Eager to learn more about Bollier’s vision for the book, I recently asked him to elaborate on his definition of the commons, to explain why he believes it is essential that we relearn the commons, and to share the greatest challenges and opportunities he sees for doing so today.
Jessica Conrad: What inspired you to write Thinking Like a Commoner?
David Bollier: I was inspired to write the book because I kept encountering people who wanted to learn about the commons and its significance, yet the only literature I could point them to was either Elinor Ostrom’s academic writing—which is insightful but also dense and not necessarily accessible to the layperson—or issue-specific, theoretical political writing, such as Marxist analysis. There wasn’t a book I could give to my mother or to a college freshman or to my friends that offered an easy introduction to the commons. I’ve been studying and thinking about the commons for about fifteen years, and I decided it was time for me to try to give a succinct overview of the commons in layperson’s language.
Jessica Conrad: You describe the commons as an “exploding field of DIY innovation ranging from Wikipedia and seed-sharing to community forests and collaborative consumption.” Can you elaborate on your definition?
David Bollier: The question “What is the commons?” implies that the commons is a unitary thing, but it’s a cultural abstraction just like the market or GDP, neither of which really exist. They are social constructions. We simply agree to talk about certain social activities in a certain way. The market, for example, includes everything from Wall Street to a hardware store to a lemonade stand.
Similarly, the commons is an umbrella term for a paradigm of social behavior and activity that involves self-organized governance and a self-provisioning of resources that tend to be local and specific. There isn’t a universal inventory of commons; instead there are countless commons. When a group of people identifies a resource and says “We want to manage and steward this resource collectively for the benefit of all,” that’s how a commons gets created.
So the commons is not just a resource. It’s a resource plus the social community that manages it and the rules, values, and practices that are used. All of this means that commons vary immensely across the world. But of course that’s what makes them so durable and hardy. They adapt to their locality, ecosystem, resource, and culture.
Circling back to the market, it’s controversial whether the commons can coexist with the market. I personally think they can, but the people who are involved in the commons must take great pains to ensure that the market doesn’t prey upon and destroy the commons. In other words, the temptation to monetize our relationships and resources tends to destroy the social solidarity and collective stewardship of a resource. So there needs to be certain social understandings or technological systems or legal protections to ensure that a commons remains a commons.
There are a lot of models—new and old—in the so-called sharing economy where people meet their needs through the market: local food systems, community-supported agriculture, Airbnb, Lyft, Uber, and so on. Some people think the latter three examples belong instead to a micro-rental economy, while others believe those services still require social cooperation. Either way, I think the more important question is whether or not the commons can continue to be a commons. Can it protect itself as a social organism and reproduce itself? When Airbnb, Lyft, or Uber users start to behave as consumers and producers rather than collective managers of the resource, that is the beginning of the end of the commons.
Jessica Conrad: Was there a time when the commons were more visibly central to human life?
David Bollier: I think the commons has been central to life for most of human existence. Only in the last two hundred years or so has the market essentially emancipated itself from social community, kinship, morality, and religion—and more recently, from political accountability. The Great Transformation, by Karl Polanyi, is a landmark book on this topic. It talks about how the market became the universal ordering principle for society after the industrial revolution.
In some ways the contemporary commons movement is trying to recover a way of life that existed before industrialization, which, not coincidentally, emphasizes provisioning for basic needs (as opposed to profit), a rough social equity, and limits on the exploitation of nature.
Jessica Conrad: What caused us to lose sight of the commons?
David Bollier: As the market culture became more and more dominant, especially during the Reagan-Thatcher era of the 1980s, we started to lose the language of the commons. The business world has made a concerted effort to assert market-friendly interpretations of the world, versus ones that help us remember the importance of the commons. This ranges from aggressive propagandizing for free markets to the privatization of government and civil infrastructure to the corporate naming of beloved stadia and public spaces. Businesses often perceive the commons as posing a very serious threat to business investment interests. That’s why we’re seeing an attack on sharing. But business almost always resists changes that might disrupt existing markets and revenue flows, even if the eventual result is more socially benign or economically constructive.
The two major political parties in the US also have little interest in talking about the commons because it might jeopardize their cozy relationships with business interests. And there is a lot of money to be made by enclosing our shared wealth, whether it is the Internet, public lands, federal drug research, or the human genome.
Jessica Conrad: Why is it essential that we begin to see the commons and think like commoners today?
David Bollier: It’s partly about recovering our humanity. Simply put, the market culture—in which we assume the role of selfish, utility-maximizing individuals—is incredibly alienating and makes us unhappy. It also has some profoundly harmful consequences for the planet and our social lives and democracy.
We need to relearn and reeducate ourselves about what it means to be in relationship to one another and to the world. The commons helps us do that—while providing a framework for new policy and technology that will enable those essential social relationships to flourish again.
Jessica Conrad: What do you see as the greatest challenge to helping people see the commons and think like commoners?
David Bollier: That’s a good question because you can’t just write a book and expect a social revolution. Helping people understand the commons will involve a process of engagement and exposure to commons in different types of contexts. During the civil rights movement, people gathered in church basements. In the early days of the women’s movement, “consciousness raising sessions” were an important vehicle for personal engagement. I’m not quite sure what the vehicles will be for the commons movement, but we need to start engaging people in a respectful, collaborative process so that we can better protect the shared wealth that we love. My immodest hope, of course, is that my book will contribute to the process.
Jessica Conrad: What is the greatest opportunity for helping people see the commons and think like commoners?
David Bollier: The most accessible example to my mind is the Internet because digital culture is so hospitable to commoning. This is made evident by the wide diversity of Internet-based commons, including open-source software, Wikipedia, open-access publishing, various social media platforms. The list goes on. The Internet is one promising place where I think commons culture can start to crystallize itself.
However, I also think there are lots of opportunities for learning internationally. The people of Greece and Madrid, for example, or those from the Arab Spring and Occupy, all had or have similar grievances with their governments. They all believe that genuine democracy is missing—that supposedly democratic, representative government is a sham.
The commons is a source of hope because provides a different mode of real, participatory governance as opposed to centralized, hierarchical, corporate-controlled government. The commons also has huge potential for meeting people’s needs more effectively. People around the world are starting to discover this fact, or to associate “the commons” with existing forms of commoning, such as that done by indigenous peoples.
Jessica Conrad: If you could suggest one strategy or tactic for helping people begin to shift to a commons-based worldview, what would it be?
David Bollier: It has to start with your passions and talents. No commons functions well without a certain level of care and engagement. If you happen to love the natural world, perhaps you should put your energy into land trusts or open-space preservation. Or if you’re digitally savvy, there are all sorts of online commons you can participate in. It all starts with the desire to protect a resource that matters to you. The other important piece is to learn the language of the commons, which helps us see that all of our commons projects, no matter how small or seemingly isolated, are related. This can provide the basis for new forms of social solidarity, despite national boundaries and other differences among us.